The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
WaPo Attacks Obama Reset Failure

With the election behind us, is the MSM finally beginning to scrutinize Obama’s foreign policy? The New York Times blasted President Obama’s North Africa policy yesterday, and the Washington Post also gave a similar treatment to the failed “reset” policy with Russia.

The piece argues that the failure of the reset policy undermines not only the U.S.-Russia relationship but also many of Obama’s wider foreign policy goals for his second term, including action on Syria and nuclear defense:

By saying no [on the Security Council], Putin can stymie U.S. goals in matters far beyond his own shores—and far removed from Russia’s long-standing beef with the United States over the latter’s plans to erect a missile defense shield in Europe.

U.S. leverage is limited. Obama is unlikely to either drop the missile defense plan or revisit steps that have eased commercial trade between both nations. Russia appears less swayed by the prospect of arms-control concessions than in the past.

From Russia’s perspective, Obama has ignored or overridden its concerns on two major issues—missile defense and the military intervention in Libya. Both instances contributed to the Russian perception that the United States’ main leverage is its ability to roll over friends and foes alike.

These points are well taken: The reset policy was clearly a flop, and U.S.-Russia relations are colder than they have been in some time. But the overall impact of this failure on U.S. policy options may be less catastrophic than this piece claims.

For the administration, the biggest problem may be that Russian opposition complicates two of its biggest foreign policy hopes: to conduct U.S. policy in a basically Wilsonian way and to advance U.S. goals on nuclear arms control.

Russia’s ability to veto resolutions in the Security Council means that on key issues like Syria the administration faces starker choices than it would otherwise. It must either watch tens if not hundreds of thousands of people die as a bitter civil war tips a pivotal state into anarchy and empowers terrorists, or ignore the UN and intervene under its own banner. The administration faces a similar dilemma with respect to Iran as it approaches the endgame: Should America go to war without a resolution from the Security Council, or should we just watch Iran get the bomb, making a mockery of four years of U.S. promises not to let this happen.

Meanwhile, Russian recalcitrance on the nuclear arms issue kills the president’s ardent hope that major progress on arms control, and ultimately the abolition of nuclear weapons, can be made on his watch.

But while these problems are substantial, they matter less to the nation as a whole than they do to the psychology of the administration. These are examples of the classic dilemmas facing liberal democrats in foreign affairs: Do you drop your Wilsonian insistence on human rights and deal with countries like Russia in a spirit of cynical realpolitik to achieve noble goals like nuclear disarmament, or do you stand by your human rights agenda at the cost of poisoning relations with Russia?

Putin is forcing President Obama to make choices he would prefer to avoid. It’s not a substantive win for the Russians, and it doesn’t make them richer or more influential, but it is a way of showing everyone that Russia can’t simply be shoved to one side by the U.S. For Putin, that is something of an achievement on its own.

Published on January 14, 2013 7:00 pm